How Not to Save a Beach Beach Nourishment in the Age of Big Development

Trying to save an eroding beach is not a new concept. Since the early twentieth century, the desire to live near the sea has driven multi-billion-dollar development and tourism. There were breakwaters built to eliminate wave action, sea walls to stop the creeping ocean rise and perpendicular groins that attempted to slow the erosion created by wave and current action.

When these structures either worsened the problem or shifted it along the coast, engineers and coastal developers thought to dredge up and pump in sediment usually strip-mined from the continental shelf. Cleverly, they spun this practice as “beach nourishment,” “beach renourishment” or “beach replenishment.” A diverse cast of environmental activists, sportsmen and independent scientists have called out these phrases as false advertising. If we were honest, they say, we’d call these projects massive dredge-and-fill operations, or land reclamation.

Dr. Orrin Pilkey, a renowned marine geologist and professor emeritus at Duke University, is a vocal critic of the Army Corps of Engineers and beach-nourishment promoters. He calls Florida “the outlaw state.” Florida is the scene of the most aggressive beach-fill programs in the U.S. One such proposed $15-18 million project, the Reach 8 project, will add excess beach to a stable shoreline for a few privileged condo owners in Florida’s Lake Worth Pier, home to one of the best fishing areas and oldest surfing communities in the U.S.

“The Reach 8 project is one of the most heinous and unfair coastal management decisions I have witnessed in 10 years of my conservation writing career,” says Terry Gibson, fishing editor of Outdoor Life. “The project will bury at least seven acres of nearshore tropical reefs with what is probably mud. It will smother the crabs and surf clams that are vital to the survival of foraging surf fishes and shorebirds. It will change the bottom around the pier and screw up the surf. And it will interfere with sea turtle nesting.”

The Surfrider Foundation of Florida has joined forces with Gibson and others to educate the public on alternative ways to slow beach erosion. Florida regional manager, Ericka Davanzo, says the foundation’s major concern is “to help educate local town officials on project repercussions so their communities are not thrust into another renourishment boondoggle.”

Davanzo referred to a 2004 St. Lucie nourishment project that went woefully awry. Coastal Planning & Engineering (CP&E), the same firm that designed the Reach 8 project, watched as mud was trucked in and bulldozed onto the second or third most important turtle nesting beach in North America, which is lined with nearshore reefs. Much of it quickly washed onto the reefs, and the remaining mud became as hard as concrete. The project had to be redone—at the taxpayers’ expense—but CP&E suffered few consequences beyond bad press.

Determined to stop another St. Lucie-esque disaster, concerned groups like Surfrider, the Snook Foundation and citizen groups sued the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for issuing the permit that will allow the Reach 8 project to go forward. The City Council of Lake Worth voted unanimously to join the lawsuit. Gibson points out that, “The project is going forward to give a few privileged dune-top residents an illusion of shore protection,” and that this constitutes an egregious instance of taxation without representation. In 2007, the citizens of Palm Beach voted “no” on a referendum to fund the Reach 8 project. However, Palm Beach City Councilman David Rosow defends the city’s decision to move forward without the popular support of his constituents. “No rational person wants to waste money,” he says. “Remember, there isn’t a Department of Human Protection or Department of Common Sense, just agencies that spend their days protecting marine life and the environment. However, the town has a responsibility to act—not continue to study, yell, criticize and certainly not cast disparaging remarks.”

But the experts working with Surfrider say the beach nourishment program is as wasteful as it is destructive. Scientists at Duke have gathered decades’ worth of independent data showing that beach-fill nourishment sand erodes two to 10 times faster than natural beach sand, because sediment used for the projects is too fine or wrongly shaped to stay in such a dynamic environment. The material slated for fill in Reach 8 is much finer than the native beach sand, and large surf routinely pounds the beach.

Engineers rely on a principle called the “Dean overfill quotient,” which basically suggests that if one can only find sand half the grain size of the native material, one just pumps twice as much onto the beach. (The dredger, it should be noted, gets paid by the square yard.) But using incompatible fill leads to a number of environmental problems: Sand finer than the indigenous sands will increase turbidity, blocking needed sunrays that contribute to plant photosynthesis.

Moreover, sand that washes out of a replenished beach may pile up on local hard bottoms killing acres of biodiverse coral reefs. Sediments left aloft on the water column may deposit themselves in contrary barring patterns and hinder or destroy coveted surfing areas. Finally, inappropriate fills destroy habitats supporting diverse bait and sport fishes.Most local beachfront communities in Texas and Florida depend on anglers for their active, multibillion-dollar-a-year recreational fishing economies. Beach nourishment, in the end, is driving away more business than it’s protecting.